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'Time to Shift the Paradigm' 

Counseling mentally ill defendants will reduce recidivism and save the city money

A 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control found Louisiana had "the lowest percentage of poor mental status of any state." That, obviously, was a year before Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures. In 2007, a report on the physical and mental health of New Orleanians conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed the huge toll Katrina had taken: One in 12 people in the metro area rated their mental health as fair or poor — the national average, according to the CDC, was one in 20 — "with symptoms of depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) present in the population." The study concluded that access to health care and treatment will be important to meet the needs of the people of New Orleans, "but this may prove difficult in the post-Katrina health system."

  Talk about an understatement.

  Now, more than six years after the storm, we can see plainly the results of local and state failures to address the area's growing mental health crisis. On almost any day in New Orleans Municipal Court, judges encounter repeat offenders whose main crime is being mentally ill. "Frequent fliers" is how Chief Judge Paul Sens describes them. Some return to court so often that Sens and the other judges know them by name. Each time they're arrested, they spend at least one night in Orleans Parish Prison at a charge of $22 per day to the city. If they keep offending, they may spend longer stints in jail at even higher costs — but with no treatment.

  As often is the case, the problem requires a solution that starts with money. By this Thursday, Dec. 1, the New Orleans City Council must adopt the 2012 municipal budget, which includes city funding for Municipal Court. While we generally like what Mayor Mitch Landrieu has done to reorganize and right-size city government since taking office in May 2010, the mayor's proposed budget for city support of Municipal Court is woefully inadequate (see, "Disorder in the Court," Nov. 22). It effectively cuts the court's budget at a time when it needs an infusion of additional cash for resources that will help address the city's mental health crisis as well as the crime problem.

  Next year, Municipal Court will see a huge influx of additional cases because of a decision by Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro to prosecute state misdemeanors — including cases involving domestic violence — in the city court rather than in Criminal District Court. Municipal Court already has the highest caseload of any local court; transferring thousands of additional cases there will only make the funding shortage worse.

  In his presentation to the council during budget hearings, Sens noted the proposed budget actually cuts Municipal Court's funding in the face of the dramatically increased workload. Sens asked for an additional $350,000 for "sanity commissions" — which are required by state law for defendants in need of mental examinations — and another $240,000 to hire law clerks and experts to deal with cases ranging from drug addition to mental illness to domestic violence. Law clerks help judges research legal issues and keep up with their workload. Hiring mental health experts could wind up saving the city millions that otherwise would be spent keeping minor offenders in jail — without any treatment.

  Former NOPD Crisis Unit chief Cecile Tebo, a staunch advocate for mental health services, said it would be "negligent" not to fund mental health services adequately at Municipal Court. Sens told the council that counseling mentally ill defendants will reduce recidivism and save the city money. "It is the case of the proverbial 'pay me now or pay me later,'" Sens said. "We as a community need to make treatment of the mentally ill and the addicted a priority — or we are destined to pay for their continual incarceration. Incarceration as a treatment option has never been a successful policy. It is time to shift the paradigm."

  We agree.

  We recognize that the budgeting process seldom presents city leaders with easy choices. Nonetheless, with crime on everyone's mind and city officials desperate to find ways to make citizens feel safer, we think the additional budget request from Municipal Court is reasonable, defensible, and narrowly targeted at a specific problem that desperately needs to be addressed.

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